Forged in the 1960s and flourishing in the 1970s, giallo films were to those decades of Italian cinema what slashers were to American film in the ’70s and 1980s — in a prolific sense if not artistic.
With apologies to slasher standard-bearers like 1978’s Halloween, the visual sophistication of almost any giallo is often the biggest, and most readily apparent, differentiation. Yes, there are common gialli standards like black-gloved killers who prefer a symbolically loaded penetrative method of knife murder — all the more appropriate for victims that express their sexuality to varying degrees of explicitness or that facilitate said expression. But undercurrents of madness, paranoia, alienation and sometimes even social commentary afforded giallo filmmakers more creative leeway than the seat-filling, teen-scaring demands of most slasher cinema. It’s not necessarily auteurism or sophistication, but quite a few giallo films have more on their mind than quick bucks or lurid fucks.
That certainly applies to all three offerings in Vinegar Syndrome’s latest in its ongoing boxset series, Forgotten Gialli, Vol. 4, even as their specific selling points constitute a splashier, more salacious smattering of sex. As with the similarly cost-effective slashers, gialli popularity began to wane. As filmmakers sought to prop up their productions, they turned to more explicit scenes of intercourse that either erased, or sure appeared to erase, any boundary of simulation. Sex is often a prevalent giallo narrative force but rarely rising to the adult-film levels of this trio.
Here’s a film-by-film breakdown of the set, available in the January 2022 package to Vinegar Syndrome subscribers but also available as an a la carte purchase.
ARABELLA: BLACK ANGEL
VICE DOES NOT EQUAL SIN AND HONESTY KNOWS NO SHAME
Arabella is starved for physical satisfaction because her morose, mystery-writing husband is paralyzed and suffering from both creative and sexual blocks as crippling as his physical malady. He also resembles Creed singer Scott Stapp, which might be the worst thing going for him. To meet her sexual needs, Arabella visits Hell, a rural orgy house where the squeeze box-playing doorman dresses in slave gear and almost any fantasy can be realized for a price.
On the verge of Arabella’s own unwilling conscription into violent prostitution at Hell, the cops raid the place — after which one officer sexually assaults Arabella before letting her go. There’s every reason to believe this could be some sort of elaborate, immersive fetish for Arabella and that she knows the officer. Alas, it is an anonymous attack and one perpetrated again at Arabella’s own home — which ends as Arabella brings a fatal hammer down on the cop’s skull.
It would seem to be curtains for Arabella’s freedom. But her well-connected husband agrees to hide the body and encourages Arabella to explore her sexual wants further, as he’s now inspired to write a new novel. Thus, Arabella takes lover … after lover … after lover, and most wind up brutally murdered with some scissors to the stomach (or elsewhere) after their encounters.
Arabella: Black Angel is handily one of the most sex-stuffed giallo films since The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, occasionally curling the corners of its already-1.33:1 viewing ratio to feel like you’re peeking through a crudely carved peephole. It’s an appropriately voyeuristic feeling for a film that features such copious copulation. The gore also approaches the level of Lucio Fulci’s legendary The New York Ripper at times, along with hilarious references to double-ketchup foods consumed by cops investigating the crimes.
After the first act, Arabella introduces Inspector Gina Falco. She’s a “balls of steel” career woman who seems to embark on a separate sex journey of her own but instead becomes a black hole of inelegantly revealed plot points and a conduit to bizarre interpersonal connections to people in Arabella’s life.
Even those who finger the murderer early on will have fun with the way Arabella keeps so many suspects afloat. Frankly, Arabella also has something there there about being open with sexual exploration and curiosity. Repression can only cause black-gloved hands to squeeze even harder around victims’ throats. Pursue your passions, Arabella seems to say, as long as they don’t hurt anyone … and before you do hurt someone because you’re pushing them down. Rooted in productive expressions and realizations of intimacy, it’s a giallo packed with sex that’s also ultimately sex-positive.
Newly scanned and restored in 2K from the original 35mm print, Arabella also has received the usual immaculate rejuvenation Vinegar Syndrome often provides. It also features an optional English dub in addition to its original Italian-language soundtrack and an audio essay by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US
“This is not a case you should be studying.”
By comparison to Arabella, The Killer is Still Among Us tries to have its tawdry cake and eat it, too … and spit it back in our piggish faces for watching. Inspired by actual unsolved murders in Italy, this well-filmed but ultimately aimless giallo revels in its grotesqueries — namely a brutal postmortem genital scalping — before an ending that seeks to shame us for salacious curiosity.
A criminology student at the University of Florence finds that a rash of new murders matches the modus operandi of those from 12 years ago that she’s studying: This killer uses a gun first before getting to work on the bodies with a blade. There can’t be two identical maniacs, she presumes, so it must be the same person. Ah, but her new boyfriend’s persistent intervention in her investigation seems awfully suspicious. So does her professor’s insistence that she study a different case. And what does that psychiatrist / gynecologist have to do with all of this?
Killer opens strongly with a scene that recalls the ominous dread of David Fincher’s Zodiac; you’re waiting for the shock of these young lovers’ car windows to crack before they’re carved up and it doesn’t land spatially quite where you expect. It’s a purposeful and powerful disorientation before the killer’s knife hovers over and pokes flesh like some sort of brutal foreplay, drawing small and inky rivulets of blood. There are also seemingly non-diegetic howls and winds sweeping through the many scenes in a morgue to help set the mood for a more detuned and dispassionate piece of erotica.
But by the time the investigation pivots into field recordings of people fucking in the woods, Killer starts to lose its grip. In the end, it sacrifices whatever artistry it accumulates for awkward advocacy and a meta-ending that lands with minimal effect.
At least it looks fantastic, with all of its inky blacks intact and crush-free thanks to a new 4K scan from the 35mm original. Author and critic Rachael Nisbet also contributes a commentary track.
THE SISTER OF URSULA
“If you could turn your sorrow into heroin, I’d be really grateful, you know?”
Among all of the films in this set, The Sister of Ursula is easily the most handsomely filmed — with an Amalfi coast setting that feels like the giallo equivalent of No Time to Die’s Matera prologue. It also boosts a theme song of sorts in “Eyes,” with both a seductive vocal version and porn pipe-laying instrumental arrangements that come to feel like some sort of Bond burlesque. There is also a weapon that … well, let’s say it’s possible that the writer of a classic ’90s serial-killer story might have watched this movie at some point. Unfortunately, all of this is ultimately overpowered by Ursula herself, an increasingly obnoxious, one-dimensional protagonist.
Ursula and her sister, Dagmar, are visiting a seaside hotel in pursuit of their estranged mother. Their father has died, and they need her to receive their end of an agreed-upon inheritance. Dagmar wants signatures, sun and sex, not necessarily in that order. Ursula, meanwhile, is a zealot for self-flagellant misery who sees visions of her own death … perhaps at the hands of the raffish drug dealer whose dick Dagmar fancies. Naturally, people do start dying at the hands of a black-clad assailant.
In the sense that there is some class commentary at play here about who’s allowed to enjoy what in its beautiful environments, Ursula crosses connotative paths with HBO’s The White Lotus, albeit more gruesomely. And for all that Amalfi splendor, we’re regularly reminded that nature’s violence eroded this land to make it that way. Demise is inherent and abundant here. There’s a similar brutality in the way Ursula and Dagmar’s father has courted and cast aside the women in his life, plying them with money (or not, as his cruel whims dictated). Once you groove into that as a motivation for murder, it’s not hard to see where this is headed. You’ll just get tired of hearing Ursula moan about it.
Then again, it has amusing quirks. The Sister of Ursula may be the only non-pornographic film with faux fellatio and a Donald Duck poster in the same scene, which introduces the disquieting thought of filming taking place in a child’s bedroom. I’m sure they washed the sheets.
Once again, Vinegar Syndrome has brought a lover’s touch to the restoration, another 4K scan from a 35mm original. The disc also includes a commentary track with author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Father of Ursula, an archival interview with writer-director Enzo Miloni.
Showcasing art by Earl Kessler Jr., the boxset’s packaging offers a first-rate and lovingly crafted ode to the fracturing minds often found inside the characters of a giallo film. But like the genre itself, the films in this set ultimately turn out to be a bit of a mixed bag — not without their idiosyncratic ambitions or visual acumen, and definitely not without their more prurient appeal, but also not entirely successful. Collectively, these gialli are more catnap than catnip. But for diehard fans, this is likely another Vinegar Syndrome winner.